Could declining public school enrollment be good for students?
In the United States, schools resumed in-person learning last year, but enrollment in public schools across the country has not returned to pre-pandemic levels and, in some cases, has continued down.
About 1.2 million students have left public schools in the United States since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, according to a recent national survey. Schools in urban centers across the country, such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, have been particularly hard hit. In Los Angeles, enrollment in public non-charter schools fell by nearly 50,000 between the 2019-20 school year and the 2021-2022 school year, according to the California Department of Education. Enrollment in Boston public schools has fallen about 8.5% since October 2019, representing a decrease of about 4,300 students.
In the United States, declining enrollment is having a real impact on public schools, since enrollment is directly tied to state and federal government aid per student. Low enrollment also impacts school budgets and long-term facility plans. As a result, school districts across the country have had to make tough decisions, cut budgets, lay off teachers and administrative staff, and even close schools. This is in addition to managing a rapidly expanding achievement gap, especially for students of color.
But could the precipitous drop in public school enrollment potentially be a good thing for some students?
Although falling enrollment numbers are having a real impact on public school districts, Wendi Williams, dean of the School of Education at Mills College, says it could be. There are proven benefits to smaller classrooms, she said, including a greater sense of connection and community. Mills College is expected to merge with Northeastern University in July.
Williams recalls attending public schools in Southern California in the 1980s and 1990s, when class sizes steadily increased to more than 30 students in a classroom.
“We have had overcrowded classrooms, so what may seem like too few students in a classroom may be the right size of classroom for effective learning and development and community engagement, especially for children who need to regain social engagement post-pandemic,” says Williams.
The pandemic isn’t the only culprit for declining nationwide enrollment. Falling birth and immigration rates had already led to a national trend of declining public school enrollment before the pandemic, Williams says. However, the pandemic has made the situation worse.
In Boston, public school enrollment had been steadily declining since 2015, but the pandemic precipitated a rapid decline. This year alone, the number of students has dropped by 4%.
According to Williams, there are several possible explanations for the decline. Frustrated by the shift to distance learning and mask mandates in schools, some parents pulled their children out of public schools and sent them to private schools. Private schools initially saw declining enrollment during the pandemic — a 6.4% drop between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. However, the National Catholic Educational Association reported a 3.8% increase in enrollment in 2021-22, the first increase in two decades.
Due to job loss to their families, ongoing economic impacts of the pandemic, or COVID-related health issues, some students, especially students of color, have faced additional challenges during the pandemic, explains Cliff Lee, associate professor of education at Mills College.
“It had a significant impact on the mental health, spiritual health, emotional health of students and families, and it’s not like it’s over,” Lee said. “Families continue to deal with the challenges of COVID that are still ongoing, as well as inflation and economic uncertainties.”
Meanwhile, other families have turned to homeschooling and taking advantage of the flexibility offered by remote work.
“I think parents and kids saw freedom in it,” Williams says. “A lot of people haven’t returned to work or had more flexibility around remote options and they’ve worked out the schedule and life dynamics with school. And with the world being slightly more open, that means they can balance each other inside and outside of the house. I think that changed things.
Although Williams has been buoyed by the involvement of parents in their children’s education in recent years, she also cautioned that there are some things teachers are fundamentally better equipped to do.
“Knowing your child and knowing who your child is as a learner is not the same as having a deep understanding of teaching practices, different types of learners, especially in the education space. specialized and differentiated learning and to think about the wide range of neuro-divergence among young people and how this can and should be supported in a school setting with multiple children, as opposed to one child,” says Williams.
In a public school, individual education is a luxury. However, according to Williams, smaller class sizes are generally a way to help students and teachers improve classroom learning. A decline in enrollment could be an unexpected boon in this regard.
“[Students] need more time to learn and get to know them, and a good teacher needs more space and time not only to get to know them individually, but also to create the possibilities and opportunities for other children to get to know them well and so other parents know the kids well too,” adds Williams.
However, embracing the small classroom movement is about more than reducing class sizes.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about money and resources, but what’s best for the kids isn’t always what’s best for the budget,” Williams says.
Williams was hesitant to say whether there would be a jump or another drop in enrollment, though she was adamant that the past two years of declining enrollment are just another fluctuation in a long series of ups and downs. low for the public school system. Instead, she says, there will likely be increases and decreases based on “local dynamics” in certain cities and states.
“Places where it’s cheaper to live are likely to see a recovery,” Williams says. “I’m in the Bay Area. It’s expensive, and people choose to move to suburban or even rural areas because it’s more affordable in terms of housing, and so public schools in those areas may see a recovery.
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